The decision by Justice Edward Pepperall to send Dawn Foster to prison for 28 months for accessing abortion pills back in 2020 shows the perils that access to abortion still faces, with the application of an archaic law. Foster is a 44-year-old mother of three, who did not want another child.
Foster will serve the prison sentence half in custody and half under license. Abortion became legal in 1967 under the Abortion Act but the 1861 (!) law that Pepperall used against her was never abolished. Despite pleas to the judge from medical bodies like the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives not to imprison Foster, Pepperall cruelly went ahead.
The 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act actually carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Pepperall accepted that Foster was in a vulnerable condition with her experiences but nevertheless sent her down. This is not an isolated incident as the imprisonment of vulnerable women is common in the UK. Most women in prison are there for non-violent offences. According to the Prison Reform Trust, they have often experienced domestic violence in the family as a child or in a relationship as an adult.
Abortion in the UK is seen not as part of healthcare but as defined by criminality. This sentence highlights the misogyny of the British legal system.
At a time when the Roe versus Wade decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in the USA, seriously endangering abortion rights there, and where it is outlawed in several states, even in instances of rape and incest, and where a woman in Poland died because doctors refused her an abortion, this sentencing reminds us that abortion rights in this country too are still under threat. Pills through the post reduced waiting times and were seen by patients in a welcome light. As Kerry Abel of Abortion Rights noted “Pills by post was a significant measure that reduced countless socio-economic barriers to abortion care during the pandemic.”
The Foster case is not the only example of legal threats to abortion. One woman served two years in prison after inducing a miscarriage in 2019 under pressure from an abusive partner who stopped her from seeing a doctor. Another case was that of a 15-year-old who was investigated for a year over an early stillbirth.
Reproductive rights must be defended and abortion must be totally decriminalised. This means a mass mobilisation as previously when the 1967 act was brought in and when previous threats to abortion rights were seen off. The Government certainly cannot be relied upon to defend these rights won in struggle. Last summer in a statement on gender equality following a conference of freedom of religion , any commitment to abortion rights was omitted.